Riddley Walker: On world-building

Riddley Walker: On world-building

Wrapped Up In Books is The A.V. Club’s monthly book club. We’re currently discussing this month’s selection, Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker, in a series of posts to be followed by a live online chat Thursday at 3:30 p.m. CST and a feature interview with Hoban on Friday.

Todd VanDerWerff: To me, the best thing a work of art can do is build a whole alternate world to disappear into. World-building is sort of unfairly conflated with fantasy and science fiction because those genres often involve having to invent actual worlds that never existed, but just as much of it goes on in the wholly satisfying and more realistic works we read or enjoy. The Baltimore of The Wire is an example of a fully developed, though realistic world, and so is something like the small town George Eliot creates in Middlemarch. To me, world-building is less about world invention (which seems to be what the phrase means for a lot of people) and more about world maintenance, about setting up a place for the characters of the work to live in and then making sure that all of them fit within it, that none of them are merely there to service the plot and that even the most minor of minor characters suggests an entire, fascinating story could be told about them.

Even though I didn't like Riddley Walker as much on my first read as I did on this re-read (when I'd say it legitimately vaulted into the short list of books I name when I am asked what my favorite novels of all time are), I could sense the care and effort Russell Hoban put into building his world. Everything here is nicely thought out, and you always get the sense that there's more to all of the people Riddley encounters than what he tells us, that Hoban could probably write a fairly exciting book about Lorna or Granser or the Eusa folk. I'd say the best novels create whole places for us to get lost in (even if we don't want to), and I'd put Inland on the same level as Fitzgerald's Jazz Age New York or Crowley's Edgewood or, yes, Adams' Watership Down as a world that seems at once timeless and doomed, a place that is both full of potential and shot through with loss.

Even better, he's thought through a lot of the history of this world, and even if he doesn't explain completely how everything came to be as it was, he's left us lots of tantalizing hints. He's also thought through that this history would be a mutable thing to these people, that individuals would seize upon the story of humanity's fate to serve their own political ends, as when Goodparley and Orfing subtly twist the Eusa story in their first show to seem to exalt the idea of agriculture above a life of foraging. The world of Riddley Walker is very much a world on the cusp, and as the book ends, that point has been reached and the characters haven't even begun to sort out the new world order. But there are hints enough here that this will all end, inevitably, in the exact same place. (A Canticle for Leibowitz takes roughly the same path, but it pulls out to such a wide view that it makes these things more explicit, perhaps to its detriment, though the closing passages are beautifully written.)

That said, I find a few loose threads in the world building here that leave me less than satisfied. I am not certain that the idea of the puppet shows (which I will talk about more tomorrow) wholly makes sense. It seems rather too clever (or is that clevver?) a metaphor for the ways that politics and religion tend to manipulate people, particularly when they go hand in hand. I liked the puppet shows themselves, but I never really bought them as a part of the world in the same way I did, say, the Eusa mythos. They felt like one element too many, like Hoban thought about other things he was fascinated by, landed on puppet shows, and added a couple to the narrative in the form of myth-makers. I realize that choosing what does and doesn't survive an apocalypse in a book like this is a matter of authorial license, but the idea of Punch and Judy carrying forward through time struck me as ever so slightly off, even as I vastly enjoyed the shows that Goodparley and then Riddley put on for the citizenry.

I'm also not wholly convinced by the psychic powers evidenced by the Eusa folk. I realize that they are, ultimately, a minor element (which would have taken over many a lesser novel), and that Hoban leaves himself an out - as he does with almost every other mystical element - in the idea that they might just be even more sophisticated tricksters (though Riddley would never express such a thought). But I felt they pushed the book too far in a distinctly sci-fi direction when it might have been better to leave things either ambiguous or grounded in the muck and mire of Riddley's reality.

In general, though, I like the world of the novel. It feels impeccably real to me, even as I'm completely aware at all turns of just how much effort Hoban has put into constructing it. The points listed above are, ultimately, minor nitpicks because the psychic moments are such a small thing in the book, and the puppet shows themselves are very well written and lead to some of the book's most terrifically written philosophical moments (like Riddley's thoughts on how art tends to encompass the entirety of a person in Chapter 17), even as I find them a little too much like modern signposts put into the story by Hoban to help us keep our bearings. By and large, the world of Inland is one of lost promise, and that's a theme I respond to. We'll talk a little about myth and its role in the story tomorrow, but Inland reminds me of nothing less than the Wastelands the Fisher King hopes to bring back to life. There's always that chance - it's no coincidence, I think, that the oxen the farmer drives are named after Jupiter and Callisto - but everything in Riddley's world is a near thing, poised equally between a chance of life and the certainty of death.

But how about you guys? The world of Inland is rather intricately constructed. Did any of it strike you as unnecessary? And what did you think of Hoban's decisions to keep the ruins Riddley finds of modern devices mostly ghosts of an earlier age, rather than clearly distinct machines, as you might find in another work?

Donna Bowman: I love immersion. I love detail. None of that is any secret to those who have endured my passion for some of our Wrapped Up In Books selections (e.g., Master and Commander; The Woman Chaser; Little, Big). Nothing makes me happier than extraneous detail, more reality than I need to make sense of the story. I've taught a class a couple of times called "Contemporary Mythologies" where I try to show how meticulous, obsessive world-building leads to stories that the reader actually wants to inhabit. Yet it's not just detail crammed into the frame that makes this possible -- it's restraint, too; the sense that there is a larger, unspoken, but eminently real world just beyond what we can see, rendered with conviction because that world already exists in the creator's mind.  Religious texts convey that sense. The stories are not all; the reality they inhabit and coalesce into narrative is crucial.  I see that in so many books I love, from The Deed Of Paksenarrion to Astro City (both works that made their way onto the syllabus of that aforementioned class).

Riddley Walker could be there, too. And Hoban could be the poster child for allusive prose in the service of such an effect. It's the throwaway comments, the things that Riddley assumes we already know, that make this work so very well -- the nature of the dogs, the conflict between hunter-gatherers and farmers, the job of connexion man and the structure of his world's hierarchy. To me, the "psychic powers" Todd mentions are part and parcel of that. We elide over the details of how technology works in our speech and writing, because it's just a taken-for-granted background to our lives: "I turned on the light," "I started the car," "I googled Russell Hoban." The mystical, affective dimension of life in Riddley's time (I saw it that way rather than in terms of the paranormal) is the same way. A pre-modern person would have told it exactly the same: "And then she became possessed by a demon," "and then the severed head prophesied."

I am, perhaps, too much in love with giving my consciousness over to storytellers and artists and letting them take me wherever they want. I deeply desire works that allow me to enter into a fully trusting relationship. And when that happens, I tend to resist nitpicking the creator's choices. I don't want to ask whether they should have done something different, because if they had, I would have been in a different world having a different experience. I want to ask why they chose to do what they did -- how it fits into who they are, what they wanted to do, what compelled and drove them. So I will refrain from speculating on whether any particular detail or lack thereof found in Riddley Walker is a good idea. Because the whole held me in its grasp, I wish only to explicate (like the early church fathers) why each detail and each omission is "fitting" -- worthy of a work with such transformative power.

Ellen Wernecke: So long as I was in Riddley Walker, I thought the world of Inland was terrifically constructed. But reading your commentary, Todd, has caused me to second-guess that determination.

You mention in your definition of world-building that an author or creator has to ensure that in the new world “even the most minor of minor characters suggests an entire, fascinating story could be told about them." It wasn’t until now that I realized, I don’t believe that about most of the other characters in this book. I would have liked to tag along with Goodparley and Orfing (or rather, that current incarnation of Goodparley and Orfing), but that might be more of a function of their jobs – what it would look like to be a leader in such a lawless world – than of anything they did in particular. My interest in the history of the 1 Big 1 and Riddley’s description of it happening did not extend particularly to the personal dimension, perhaps because we know pretty early on that we’re far removed from the survivors of the nuclear disaster, let alone its culprits.

So what attracted me to Riddley as a protagonist that caused me to detach from the other characters around him? Besides the power he holds as narrator (more of which, tomorrow) Hoban sets him up with the triple coincidence of the three deaths that open the book, which cause Lorna and the other people around to recognize his power.

But I think what makes Riddley the one we want to continue to follow throughout the novel is his impressionableness. Despite his new position of power as the new “connexion man,” Riddley is the question-asker, the observer in every situation. Sometimes it was hard to remember that he was 12 -- he seemed more like a constantly-underfoot five-year-old. We lean towards him because through him the whole world opens up to us, which brings me to what I brought up yesterday regarding “clevverness”: I had feared with the primary retelling of the 1 Big 1 that Hoban was introducing a theme about as subtle as the pig speeches in Animal Farm. Yet as Riddley acquires knowledge about the countryside and its people, it only seems to help him. He may not know much about numbers, but his travels alone undoubtedly allow him to find his eventual occupation and escape a gruesome fate. Is this proof that mankind will, in fact, never learn from its mistakes?

Leonard Pierce: Like you, Todd -- like most of us, I'd be willing to bet -- I too am a huge fan of accomplished world-building, whether it's in a fantastic setting or a realistic one.  A well-explored alternate reality can make me overlook other flaws in storytelling, while an inadequately constructed one can utterly distract me from the strengths of a text.  For as much as I preach about how it's the execution and not the concept, that good prose trumps good plot, that style should get at least as much attention as substance, I have to admit that few things draw me in like the allure of a constructed reality.  (Hell, I'd like to sit in on Donna's class, if I wasn't afraid she'd give me too much homework.)

So it won't shock anyone that much as I admired its other strengths, I loved Riddley Walker for its elaborate yet enigmatic alternate reality.  I never found it strained or underwritten, but it also kept up enough of a veil that I was intrigued with it until the very end, when that veil was beginning to part, or at least to shift.  Far worse than a constructed reality in which nothing is adequately explained is one where everything is explained; an author who wishes to court an intelligent and interested audience has to give out enough detail to make the world a rich and intriguing place, but not so much detail that he denies those readers and chance to fill in the blanks with their own imagination, to leave room for their own interpretations and theories.  I think Hoban does an excellent job in this regard; Riddley Walker's world is one that's rich enough to tell the story it supports, but that's open enough to leave readers wondering what else there is to it.

While I agree that there are times, as with the social importance of the corrupted Punch and Judy show, that the book's society reads like Hoban threw a lot of his personal obsessions together and tried to make a coherent world out of them, I don't think he's unique in this regard, nor do I find it all that unrealistic.  Imagine yourself explaining the Catholic Church, for example, to a theoretical person entirely unfamiliar with our culture and history; it's likely that they'd find its concatenation of high faith, low culture, complex theology, and re-jiggered polytheistic ritual fairly ridiculous, a kluged-together hodgepodge that makes no sense whatsoever despite your insistence that it's one of the major forces in the history of civilization.  As for the intimation of supernatural powers, I'll admit to both being intrigued by it and somewhat frustrated by its under-exploration, but I'm also willing to accept it as one of the fascinating aspects of Riddley Walker that is discussed but never explained, like the great iron machines and their inscriptions.  Donna's notion that it's a reference to something commonly accepted in the world of the book, but incandescently strange to those of us not versed in its arcana, works well enough for me.

I know we'll probably talk about this tomorrow, and maybe even more in Thursday's chat, but I did want to mention one aspect of this tightly controlled, highly regimented conception of a fictional reality that I did find a little shaky.  Ellen mentioned it above, and it certainly put me in mind of last month's discussion of The Wrestler's Cruel Study:  because of the deliberately archaic mythological approach to the story, I found myself having a pretty hard time caring about any of the characters other than Riddley himself.  Some folks complained that, even though they were clearly meant to be religious and/or mythological archetypes, some of the characters in Wrestler's were just too broadly drawn to be of much value outside of their storytelling function; I certainly found that to be the case here, and personally, even more so than in Dobyn's case, because we see them only through Riddley's eyes and not through the much more impressionistic and loose narrative voice in last month's book.

This wasn't nearly enough to sink the book for me.  I loved it overall, and I think the very nature of the story, with its deep roots in ancient archetypes of storytelling (you're right on, Todd, to tie to to the Fisher King legend), is going to overemphasize the role of Riddley himself at the cost of underemphasizing the rest of the characters.  I even think Hoban is even aware of this issue, and brings it out in the Punchinello references:  he seems to be saying it's both foolish of us to question the inevitably singular behavior of these archetypes, and irresistible that we do so.  But like Ellen, I though there wasn't much interesting in most of the rest of the characters beyond their social function, a rare bit of laxity in what is otherwise an extraordinarily rich and complete story.

Zack Handlen: Is there anybody who doesn't enjoy world-building? I mean, I can understand getting bored by overly expository descriptions, or being more engaged at an individual character level than with a larger social context, but I believe that good world-building is an essential component to narrative fiction, because it turns concepts into a structure that fosters emotional investment and immersion. And really, my biggest problem with Riddley Walker was that for a while, I couldn't find a way into the environment Hoban had so meticulously created. The lack of one-to-one relationship between our technology and the mysterious machines and the alien nature of so much of Ridley's life made it difficult for me to find something I could use to get past all the strangeness. Once I started recognizing certain recurring components (I think the "connexion" bit caught me first, because I liked the idea of a priest being translated into such a direct, unadorned job), I had a better handle on it, but while I respect Hoban's unwillingness to make things too easy, it definitely made me work harder as a reader.

In terms of other fictive words, how about Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast? Same dying, decaying location, same endless ritual repeated through duty more than real purpose, and even that same revulsion for individuals who try and manipulate the system for power. Plus, there's one main character who's a little more interested in rising above the system than everyone else. The Gormenghast novels do a better job at giving other characters besides the lead a chance to shine; there were only one or two people in Riddley who I found stood out apart from Riddley himself. I'm not sure I'd really hold that against the book, though. It's a first-person narrative, and Hoban seems more interested in parables and ideas than getting us too concerned about individuals. 

As for the puppet shows, they were one of my favorite elements in the story, and I didn't have any problem imagining they would've stuck around. Punch's continued existence is as much a statement as the actual shows themselves, because his nature is an inherent part of the humanity Hoban is studying. I suppose there are other, more esoteric approaches, but the importance of storytelling is such a strong part of the book that I can't imagine things otherwise. I thought the "psychic" trickery was out of place, though. 

Keith Phipps: I'm not sure what else I have to add to the topic of world-building, honestly, because you all covered it so well. Can I just say that I kept thinking about this XTC song the whole time I was reading the book? I mean that as a compliment, and I now wonder if Andy Partridge was thinking of the book when he wrote it: